This wasn’t bad. Given that Sky Atlantic aren’t exactly the masters of historical accuracy, I was prepared for all kinds of bizarre goings-on. When we started with a bride-to-be, our heroine Livia Drusilla, being told to inspect a naked male slave so that she’d know what bits were where before the wedding night, and then overhearing her relatives discussing murdering the bridegroom, I thought, oh dear, here we go. But, after that, it wasn’t OTT at all. In fact, some of the second episode felt a bit like a 1970s sitcom, as a leading Roman patrician got in a strop because no-one’d told him the dress code for a party, and he’d been the only one who’d turned up in a toga. At the said party, the women’d sat at one end of the room, bitching about the decor, and the men’d sat at the other, discussing chariot-racing. This was after an earlier party, at which the host had explained to Octavian that their toilet was now connected to the aqueduct, so it didn’t smell like the old one did. I’m not sure that Octavian needed to know this.
In between the parties, the political history was actually pretty accurate, as we saw Livia’s father back the losing side, fighting with Brutus and Cassius against Octavian and Mark Antony, and killing himself after their defeat at Philippi. It’s a well-known part of Roman history, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone consider its effect on Livia before. If people write about the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it’s usually either “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” or accusing Livia and Agrippina of poisoning everyone. This series is certainly something different.
Impressive array of local actors. Young Gaius/Octavian/Augustus is from Bolton. His older self is from Atherton. His second wife is from Rochdale. And his chief general is from Wigan. In fact, young Gaius actually seems to be rocking a “Madchester” 1990 image, with the floppy black hair. Just needs a hooded top and a pair of Joe Bloggs jeans instead of the maroon toga.
It was rather confusing, because we kept flashing backwards and forwards in time, but a lot of TV series, films and books do that now. And the Julio-Claudians are confusing generally, because they’re all known by umpteen different names, all have the same names as umpteen other people, and keep changing their partners; but that’s not Sky Atlantic’s fault.
Our heroine Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta, was Octavian (referred to in the programme, accurately as we’re in his early years, as Gaius, but I’m used to thinking of him as Octavian, and his official emperor name was Caesar Augustus)’s third wife. She was previously married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, the one who got the dress code wrong. Not to be confused with the Nero, who fiddled whilst Rome burned. That Nero, the one who fiddled, was directly descended from Livia/Julia, via her son Tiberius, whom she was expecting with her first husband when Gaius/Octavian/Augustus ordered him to divorce her, at the same time as which divorced his own second wife (Scribonia from Rochdale), who was expecting their daughter, also Julia, who later married Tiberius. Tiberius was Julia’s third husband. She was previously married to Agrippa from Wigan. And someone else (not at the same time). I did say it was confusing.
Anyway, Livia’s a pretty interesting character, who was married to Octavian for over 50 years, held far more power than most other Julio-Claudian women did, and, depending on what you read, was either a domineering dowager who went around poisoning people or else was a paragon of all the virtues. There was a lot of talk in this first episode about women only being valued for childbearing and weaving, so I assume this is going to be a feminist take on things.
It wasn’t brilliant, but it certainly wasn’t bad. I shall keep watching!